Protests are heating up over police brutality in the middle of a presidential election year. Can protests change election outcomes or the future of the parties? New research suggests that protests do leave their mark, and the Trump protest era has been quite active. Daniel Gillion finds that liberal protests help Democrats win elections, stimulating new campaign contributions, public support, and candidacies, and increasing their vote share. Michael Heaney finds that protests respond to the party of the president and can help the party out of power organize and voice its concerns. They both say we should not underestimate the power of street protests, even for conventional political outcomes.

Guests: Daniel Gillion, University of Pennsylvania; Michael Heaney, University of Glasgow and the University of Michigan 
Studies: The Loud Minority; “The Science of Contemporary Street Protests.”


Matt Grossmann: This week on the Science of Politics, how protests move parties and elections. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossman. Protests are heating up over police brutality and COVID-19 lockdowns in the middle of a presidential election year. How much do protests respond to the political moment? And can they change election outcomes? New research suggests that protests can change partisanship and voting, helping liberal and conservative protesters leave their mark. And the Trump protest era has been quite active.

Today, I talked to Daniel Gillion of the University of Pennsylvania about his new Princeton book, The Loud Minority. He finds that liberal protests help Democrats win elections, stimulating new campaign contributions, public support, and candidacies, and increasing their vote share with the opposite true for conservative protests.

I also talked to Michael Heaney of the University of Glasgow and the University of Michigan about his research on protest under the Trump administration. He finds that protests will respond to the party of the president and can help the party out of power organize and voice its concerns. He also coauthored a recent review, “The Science of Contemporary Street Protests.” The new review looks at the new era of protests, finding a big increase under Trump.

Michael Heaney: This article was coauthored article with Dana Fisher, Kenneth Andrews, Neil Karen, Erica Chenoweth, Tommy Leon, Nathan Perkins, and Jeremy Pressman. And this talks about what we’ve learned about protests both by using event counting methods and by looking at surveys of people participating in protests. And many people traditionally think about the 1960s as the pinnacle of protest in the United States. And there’s a lot to be said for that perspective, but we think it’s also important to recognize that there’s a new era of broad mass protest, which began in the United States roughly in the late 1990s with the global justice movement.

And of course the internet played a huge role in supporting these new protests. But even considering the rising prominence of protest since the late 1990s, the period of the Trump presidency stands out as exceptional. So in this article we really looked at this recent period. We’ve noted that the Trump era has witnessed some of the largest protests that we’ve ever seen in American history, especially the Women’s March in 2017. We’ve seen coordinated protests across the United States and worldwide, but we’ve also seen an amazing diversity of topics from the Women’s March, support for science, anti-gun violence, racial justice, protests for white supremacy, the right to life protest, pro-Trump protests, et cetera. So there’s been a cornucopia of different kinds of protests during the Trump era. There’s also been a continuing evolution of the ways that people protest. Of course, we’ve seen traditional protest marches and demonstrations, but we’ve also seen new ways of doing online protests and even in-person protests, such as car caravans.

We’ve learned that protesters are widely motivated by their belief about whether their voices being heard through other channels. That’s a big part of the reason why protests grow after people perceive there to be an unjust or adverse electoral outcome. And then the protest tends to diminish as other opportunities for raising their voice present themselves. We see protests coming both from the left and the right sides of the political spectrum, but these protesters in these two different groups are differently motivated. So during the Trump era, right-leaning protesters have been more likely than left protestors to see the American political system as effective and solving problems and just see elections as creating responsive government. Left-leaning protesters are more likely to embrace a role for third parties in American politics, and to acknowledge the potential effectiveness of incivility and violence during project.

Matt Grossmann: The big new finding in Gillion’s book is that protests help their ideological side.

Daniel Gillion: Protest matters for how individuals engage in electorial politics. What’s most important is that we no longer see protests in the same way. When you see individuals engaging in let’s say, Black Lives Matter protests or individuals engaging in gender protests, you don’t look at those protests events and say to yourself, “Okay, those are just protests. They have no party affiliation. These are just individuals protesting, let’s say over discrimination.” Rather when individuals look at these types of protests, they tend to put them in boxes. That’s a liberal protest, that’s a conservative protest. And for the two examples I just gave would often say that’s a liberal protest. When those protests continue to occur over time, it’s more likely to mobilize individuals to support liberal causes, donate more money to liberal campaigns, turn out and vote for liberal candidates and even promote individuals who run for office if they represent the ideological message of protestors. In this case, it would be on the liberal side.

And so that’s what’s different about protest now that the book tries to highlight is that protest has become ideological and it’s influencing our electoral process.

Matt Grossmann: Gillion says protesters influence the rest of us.

Daniel Gillion: Nixon made that claim of the silent majority when he was speaking in front of the American people. And he said that he wanted to enlist them to support his costs for keeping the troops in Vietnam. Even though he had saw protestors saying you should bring the boys home from Vietnam. But he tried to enlist the majority of the nation, those who weren’t engaging in protest and he called them the silent majority. And so from that point, it was always conceived that individuals who aren’t engaging in protest are somehow opposed to the protesters. And that term, the silent majority sort of fell out of usage. We saw it picked up again with Donald Trump, actually a couple of decades later in which he was also enlisting those individuals who weren’t protesting against him and calling them the silent majority.

What my book shows that sort of goes against that logic is that the loud minority in the silent majority. And when I say loud minority, I mean those who are protesting, they are not opposed to one another. In reality, the loud minority in the protesters are influencing the perceptions of the silent majority. Those who are sitting home want protesting. Just because you’re not carrying a sign, doesn’t mean that you do not feel the same way as someone who’s engaging in protest. So that’s the fallacy that I pushed back against. This notion that protesters are actually thinking completely different than non-protesters, but rather non-protesters, those who are sitting home, are influenced by protestors in their influence along ideological lines.

Matt Grossmann: And protests have multiple influences, even if they don’t achieve their core ask.

Daniel Gillion: In looking at protests, there are a ton of different possible outcomes or influences that protest can have on society. And sometimes as average citizens, when we don’t see the major impact, if protest isn’t changing who gets into office as president, we say to ourself, “Protest is a failure,” if it doesn’t work out that way. So one thing I try to do in this book is to look at the multiple influences that protests can have on electoral politics. And so I focused on build individuals who decided to run for office, campaign contributions, how individuals decide to vote. And one thing that I love to do in my books is to match theoretical perspectives that I bring to the table alongside actual, empirical hardcore data.

And the way I do that in this particular book is to examine whether or not liberal protests led to liberal politicians receiving more resources, more campaign dollars. And indeed, we find that to be true. If you look at the areas in which you saw liberal protests in the nation, more campaign dollars came out of those areas and going into the campaigns of liberal politicians. Also, when you saw liberal protests occur, politicians who wanted to run for office on the liberal side came forward. Those individuals who had ran in the past, well, what we call seasoned politicians who were no longer in office, but they decided to come back and to compete against potential conservative incumbents.

And we also looked at voter outcomes. So not only voter outcomes, but those individuals who decide to even go to the polls. So in areas in which you saw liberal or conservative protests, more voters supported the liberal candidates in areas in which you saw liberal protests. And more conservative voters supported conservative candidates in areas in which you saw conservative protests. And so there’s this narrative that is very coherent. More liberal protests leads to more favorable outcomes for liberal politicians. More conservative protests leads to conservative outcomes for conservative politicians. And so those are the metrics that I use to assess what’s going on and it matches well with the theoretical framework.

Matt Grossmann: Heaney’s work builds on his prior research on how partisanship motivates protests.

Michael Heaney: Well, my prior protest oriented research focused on the antiwar movement in the United States. Although I also look somewhat at the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements, I was also interested in how, and the extent to which activists identities are tied to political parties. Most notably this work culminated as a book with Fabio Rojas titled Party in the Street, and that was published by Cambridge University press in 2015.

As protest moves into the Trump era. I wanted to expand upon this agenda in two ways. First, I wanted to look at a broader range of issues. Luckily, the Trump presidency has brought out opposition on so many topics. That’s been good for research. That’s helped to make my research broader in scope. And second, I wanted to look at activist identities as motivated by factors other than just partisanship. I’ve also been exploring issue identities and ideological identities.

Matt Grossmann: He says the Trump protests are not all part of one resistance.

Michael Heaney: I think that the conventional wisdom on the Trump resistance protests that is broadly correct, is that these protests have brought a new generation of activists into the streets. This is particularly true for women and feminists. Indeed, the Women’s March has had a big impact on the political mobilization of the left. I think that the conventional wisdom is also correct that these resistance protests have helped to introduce people to electoral institutional politics, organizations such as Indivisible played a vital role on this point.

Where I think the conventional wisdom is misguided, it has to do with seeing all of these left leaning protests as linked to the Resistance with a capital R, that we might think of as being fundamentally responsive to Trump. Many protests are actually outside the resistance.

For example, the global climate strike and protest against school shootings are not really resistance that is anti-Trump motivated, as much as they are issue motivated or linked to longer standing [inaudible 00:12:01] .

Matt Grossmann: He finds differences across even liberal protests by candidate and type.

Michael Heaney: The most recent surveys that I conducted were in January, 2020 at the Women’s March, and then No War on Iran protests. I fielded surveys in Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC. I didn’t find big differences between people in different cities, however I did find big differences between the Women’s March and the No War on Iran protests.

Women’s marches were significantly more likely to think of themselves as part of the resistance. The antiwar protesters were more neutral on this label. Women’s Marches were significantly more likely to place themselves on the left side of the moderate middle of the political spectrum. Whereas antiwar protesters were more likely to place themselves on the far left, radical side of the political.

Also women’s marches were significantly more likely to throw their support behind Elizabeth Warren. Antiwar protesters were more enamored with Bernie Sanders. There weren’t very many people in either group that were particularly excited about Joe Biden, and of course, everyone disliked Donald Trump.

Matt Grossmann: These interviews were recorded before the latest round of black led mass protests against police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. [inaudible 00:13:21] Gillion had already been thinking about the racial dynamics of protest. [inaudible 00:13:25] says black activists tend to focus on minority focused actions.

Michael Heaney: So actually I’m looking at this question in a current project with Fabio Rojas, and Mona Adem of Indiana University. What we find is that African American activists, and activists in other minority racial and ethnic groups, tend to avoid these large white dominated protest events because they don’t focus on the issues that these activists are most concerned with.

For example, African American activists care about gender based inequalities, but they tend to be focused more on issues such as police violence against people of color. When African American and other minority activists do participate in white dominated movements, they tend to see themselves as allies rather than core participants to the movement. African American and other minority activists have also channeled their activism into other kinds of topics.

For example, they’ve been more focused on responding to killings of persons of color, through locally-based protests rather than large national gatherings. They’ve also made creative use of online activists. For example, a recent book by Sarah Jackson, Moya Bailey and Brooke Wells called Hashtag Activism details many of these online activist efforts. It shows how has had such as Ferguson and Trayvon Martin become a means of coordinating online activist community. Part of the reason that we don’t see these activists at large protests, it’s not because they’re not involved in activism, but they’re using other kinds of tasks.

Matt Grossmann: Gillion says both protests against police brutality and the wider resistance protests are still part of a broader, more diverse movement.

Michael Heaney: The racial makeup of protest is important when you look at the issue at hand. You take, for example, the women’s rights march, and the women’s movement over time, those are protests in which they have been pushed there. They’re pushing back on basically some of the comments that Trump’s made, but these issues are broader than that for sure. Looking at equality along the host of different issues. And when people of color aren’t included in that narrative, it begins to offer the impression that their concerns are not valued, even though racial and ethnic minorities, for the most part are often the ones on the ground, with the banners, pushing back.

So you have a huge movement like the women’s movement. I think their voices should be out front and entangled with many other voices. That would increase, I think, the buy in for many individuals who feel similar to individuals in the women’s movement. So that’s why the diversity of a cause really matters.

That being said though, so I want to put that out there, but that being said, one thing that I put forth in my work is that protests nowadays, isn’t just a pocket of protest here, a pocket of protest there that does not speak to one another. Actually it’s more holistic. You can look at the women’s movement. You can look at the Black Lives Matter movement. You can look at the movement against guns in our schools, and you can say that they’re all together offering an overarching perspective, that is a liberal perspective.

That way, if you’re looking at this from an ideological standpoint, it’s beneficial because you have multiple voices coming from multiple sides, even though within a unique movement or unique protest, it might not be as heterogeneous as we would like or diverse as we would like. But overall, these multiple protests come together to provide a overarching message that is diverse, and that is inclusive.

Matt Grossmann: Gillion looks at Black Lives Matter protests finding that they helped Democrats in 2016. They had supporters and opponents, but only support led to higher turnout.

Daniel Gillion: When you look at protests, there are bound to be both support and opposition, and there was no difference with the Black Lives Matter protest. There are individuals who saw the Black Lives Matter protest, and it just invoked complete hatred, just vitriol for this movement.

If you [inaudible 00:18:06] push back, and in terms of their thought process, and in terms of their colloquial discussions at the water cooler, they just didn’t agree what was going on in their communities. They would say as much. Likewise, you had individuals who also supported the Black Lives Matter protest and said, “These are issues that individuals should care about.”

So you had two opposing sides here. Now, the question is which of those sides, which of those views are leading into actual action. If you look at the liberal perspective, we saw that when Black Lives Matter protest occur, it actually led to a greater turnout, especially in Black communities and communities of color, African American communities in particular. In Minnesota, for example, Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Black Lives Matter protest that occurred in that specific area increased voter turnout among African Americans by 2.5%.

In Philadelphia, my home town, the Black Lives Matter protest that occurred led to an increase of 1.5% in African-Americans turning out to the polls. This is based on some of the models that we ran. If there were greater Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in more places, you would have saw more turnout.

The reality is that turnout for African Americans was down overall in 2016, likely because Obama wasn’t on the ticket. There’s an enthusiasm gap, an enthusiasm gap right there. However, when Black Lives Matter protests were occurring in those areas, the percentage of African Americans who turned out to vote actually increased. So in that way, it’s benefiting the Democratic party.

If you look at those who opposed Black Lives Matter protests, the actual voting that takes place, that was not related or correlated with their perceptions of Black Lives Matter. And we’re using regression models to assess this. So individuals felt negatively about Black Lives Matter, but they are not going out and voting because of that. That is not a consequence of their vote.

Matt Grossmann: And Heaney finds that resistance protests helped Democrats and the 2018 election.

Michael Heaney: Protests played a large role in mobilizing the Democratic party during the 2018 congressional elections. Most notably the Women’s March, Indivisible and Move On helped this process along. Statistical evidence shows that there was a significant positive association between congressional candidates participating in the Women’s March and their winning in the Democratic primary and the general election in 2018. My recent surveys show less of a connection between social movements and electoral success in the Democratic presidential primary. Perhaps the issue there is that activists were split in their support for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Matt Grossmann: Gillion’s book suggest that this is a long running pattern. Protests respond to government, but government also responds to protestors.

Daniel Gillion: Protests are both a cause and a reaction of what is taking place in government. There’s no doubt in my mind that when politicians engage in a course of action, whether it’s Trump, whether it’s Obama, whether it’s senators or governors, individuals look at that action and they say to themselves, “What can I do? Am I going to go along with the status quo? Or am I going to push back?” And so government can definitely influence protest activity, but this is almost like a circle. Once protesters put forth their concerns, once they are responding to what government is doing, they then have the ability to influence the direction of government, whether or not government continues with its same course of action.

So the causal mechanisms are multifaceted, but they aren’t just going in one direction. Now, as social scientists, we try our best to try and deal with some of these problems. We refer to it in the social sciences as endogeneity, and we do our best to look at this. And there’s a ton of statistical tools that I’m not going to bore you with. But what I try and explore in my own research is not a side in which government influences protests, but rather what happens now wants to protest occurs, because I think that that is the important side for our democracy. It is how do individuals have a voice? And I think that the protestors’ actions are more consequential, in my opinion, than the actions of government trying to influence the protesters. When you see protests occurring, you’re going to see more legislation around protesters’ concerns. You’re also going to see greater fluctuations in the voting process.

Matt Grossmann: Parties and presidents bring out protestors, but they also have other motives.

Daniel Gillion: There is no doubt that certain politicians bring up more protests. Trump is one of those figures that he’s likely to invoke more protests activity, but it’s not just about the individual. It’s also about the party. Trump is a conservative Republican and liberal citizens and liberal voters are more likely to utilize protests as a toolkit to push back. But it’s not only Trump, even though trump can really bring them out. When Obama was in office, we saw Black Lives Matter where individuals were heavily engaged in pushing back on discrimination in 2015 and 2016. When individuals feel as though they are not getting their message out, or they’re not being heard, they’re going to resort to protest activity.

Now the difference between Trump and Biden, if we’re looking ahead to 2021, if Biden is elected into office, we might see a more laxed protest response. For sure, individuals who are pushing for women’s rights, individuals who are protesting about guns in schools. We’re likely to see a decline there. But racial and ethnic minorities and individuals pushing back against strict immigration policies, we’re likely to see those continue because once again, they are the tools people of color to push back when they don’t have a voice in majoritarian constructs like voting or public opinion.

Matt Grossmann: Gillian expects the latest antilock down conservative protests to be influential through media and elections.

Daniel Gillion: The protest that we’re seeing today around the coronavirus lockdowns are… These protests are very unusual because they are in large part conservative protests and many individuals can see that, though there hasn’t been much scholarly research on this because it’s just occurred. But we can see who is gravitating towards these protests. Individuals like Trump and other conservatives are embracing these protests. So they’re unusual because they’re conservative protests and it happens some of protests are occurring on a national stage throughout the country that often doesn’t occur. And we can name the periods of time, like the Tea Party and other moments in which this did take place. Whether or not it will be influential is I don’t think much of a question. I think they will be very influential. They already have become a influential subject matter. They are drawing attention and putting pressure on both Democratic and Republican governors to open up the country.

They are allowing the debate to take place on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and other print media. Also on social media. Individuals are discussing these perspectives. So the influence is already being had. The question, in terms of how it relates to my work, would probably be, will it be impactful for the elections later on down the road and this year? And I think that if they persist, if the protest, if the pushback continues to persist, let’s assume we don’t have a vaccine, and more States are somewhat sluggish in how they open the economy. I think you will find that individual conservatives will harden their position on this pushback, and maybe even in some independents who side with protesters that are pushing back, and this will go towards Trump’s benefit. It will help him out in the long run if the protest persists.

Matt Grossmann: Heaney says they’ve been very unusual.

Michael Heaney: We don’t like the way things are going with COVID. It’s not realistic for everyone to go to Washington DC and protest about it. They’ve also flipped the preference for demonstrations on their head. So now we see conservatives preferring demonstrations more than liberals, but it’s usually the other way around. Now a big difference from the Tea Party protest during the Obama era is that they’ve been focused on lower levels of governments, governors, and concentrating on the states rather than the federal government. It’s also been very unusual that the president of the United States is encouraging opposition to some of his own policy.

Matt Grossmann: Other protestors may be fearing mass mobilization, but Heene says they can strategically change tactics even toward electoral politics.

Michael Heaney: Protest is one manifestation of activism, but activists have other tools in their toolkit, such as online activism and electoral participation. Protest is a go to tactic when people feel that their voices are not being heard through other channels, but if these other tactics are working, activists shift their energies there. So I think that the success of Democrats in the 2018 congressional election has suggested to many activists that it’s within their grasp to vote Trump out. At the same time, there have been other significant protest since 2018, most importantly, the 2019 Global Climate Strike reflects this growing strength of the international climate movement. And then of course, there’s also been protests related to COVID-19.

Matt Grossmann: But Gillian says protests work in a way that online mobilization and other tactics don’t.

Daniel Gillion: Nothing takes the place than having thousands of individuals putting up signs, walking and marching down the street. That that sends a powerful message. So the internet protests or any sort of virtual coming together won’t send the same message to the American people. And it might be encouraging to know individuals out here feel a certain way about that particular issue. The mobilization aspect of protests will not carry the same sort of punch. We’ve seen that even though many liberal voters have been hesitant to go out and protest, when an issue is salient enough, they venture out because they see the impact of having thousands of individuals together. Take, for example, the protests against the slain black jogger in Georgia. Many African Americans came out and began to push back against what they perceived as an injustice. And sure enough, that protest event gained headlines, individuals were paying attention, individuals were following what was going on and it became a salient issue.

It’s difficult for a virtual protest to have that sort of impact. And you take a look at some of the environmental protests or even some of the protests pushing back against global warming, those protests, some of them have been virtual protests and they just haven’t been able to gain the same sort of attention as these salient, in your face, protesters on the ground, moments of activism.

Matt Grossmann: Heaney says polarization means protests are here to stay. Whoever wins this November.

Michael Heaney: I think that we’re going to see protest as being an important element of American politics, regardless of who the next President is. If Trump wins reelection, we’ll see another round of massive protests. Likewise, if Biden becomes President, I think we’ll see another round of Tea Party style presidents.

Given polarization, people don’t feel like their voices are being heard through their traditional methods of participation. So I think we’re going to see people turning out and quite unhappy, no matter what the outcome of-

Matt Grossmann: The next step for Heaney is looking at the Trump protests electoral impact.

Michael Heaney: The next thing that I’m doing is writing a book called American Democracy Under Protest. And the goal is to understand protest as a fundamental tool of democratic participation. Most of the research that has been done in the past has really looked at protest as something that’s separate from the fundamental democratic processes like voting.

But I think that these two things are closely connected. And I want to look at that more systematically and to do that, I’m looking at protests that have taken place since Trump has been elected, as well as the relationship with electoral participation, such as how the Women’s March has helped encourage democratic victories and also looking at things like the way that people are participating through social media.

Matt Grossmann: Next up for Gillion is to research protest driven policy and how it matters.

Daniel Gillion: What’s next for me, to be honest with you is what happens once these policies are put in place. So you have protestors, they go out, they try and push for grievances. They try and ask for policies and they bring about change. Now, what does that change look like? How is it different from change that’s brought on by, let’s say another mechanism where a politician just introduces a bill? How’s that change different from, let’s say hearings that are… Put forth congressional hearings on the Hill?

So what is it about protests that can bring about a change that is long lasting? That’s if it is even long lasting and we know very little about the change. So my next book project is going to look at how that political change that stems from protests is able to influence individuals in society and whether or not that’s sustainable.

Matt Grossmann: Both are in agreement that sociology and political science have something to offer for protest research. And they’re trying to combine the best of both worlds.

Michael Heaney: Sociologists have been a lot more interested in protests at least within the United States, than political scientists have. Protests for sociologists has been a central and interesting political phenomenon that they’ve wanted to understand who participated and why they participated and how they participated, how this manifested other people’s grievances.

And also, I think part of what has made sociologists interested in this is that they’ve seen protesters as being outside the political system. And sociology as a discipline is very interested in understanding outsiders. Whereas political science has a strong focus on institutions. And so that’s why there’s a strong interest in, for example, why people vote and who they vote for. And political scientists, at least in the United States, has been less interested in these kind of informal mechanisms of participation. And so I think that the next step for research is to try to understand better the relationship between protests and formal institutions.

So my perspective would be that when people see the formal institutions as broken, they’re more likely to turn to protest as something they can do. And I think that if we can connect the study of protest to these formal institutions, that political scientists will have a greater interest in it.

Daniel Gillion: Political scientists and sociologists are in two different bubbles. And it’s unfortunate to be honest with you because we’re talking about the same issue. And that issue deals with how does our democracy function when individuals have preferences? Now from a sociological perspective, they have a storied history of looking at how individuals put forth their concerns. They can tell you the ins and outs of protests in social movements, but that’s basically where it ends.

On the political science side, we talk a lot about why politicians do what they do and why voters do what they do. But we offer very little information on how societal norms and societal conditions influences those political outcomes. And what I try to do in my research is to marry both of them because you cannot truly understand how politicians behave or how voters behave without understanding societal norms.

Daniel Gillion: And so when you look at protest outcomes, I mean, you look at protest movements, you’re able to gauge the direction of our democracy, and that’s very beneficial and that’s very helpful. And we shouldn’t look to, and I say, we, in this particular case, political scientists, shouldn’t look to cut that sociological aspect out of our equation, out of our thinking, because then we miss out on an important aspect of democracy.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Daniel Gillion and Michael Heaney for joining me. Please check out The Loud Minority and “The Science of Contemporary Street Protests.” And then listen in next time.